Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) - U.S. Cannot Rely Solely on Renewable Energy

Posted on June 27, 2010

Last week, The New York Times ran a story entitled “Biomass Under Scrutiny” about whether we’re accomplishing anything by displacing coal with biomass to produce clean electricity.  Biomass is essentially burning wood and other organic products in a sort of controlled bonfire to produce electricity.  Wood is natural, trees grow and re-grow—burn them up today and more trees grow tomorrow, but we can’t rely on biomass to replace significant amounts of the fossil-based electricity we get today from coal.

Biomass can and should be an important, albeit small, part of our electricity portfolio if we’re using excess forest material and industrial wood waste.  Unfortunately, The New York Times misses out on one of the most important concerns about biomass.  Just like other renewable electricity sources, it cannot be the solution to clean energy because of the problem of scale.  We would have to continually forest an area one-and-a-half times the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to replace the electricity created by two standard coal plants or one standard nuclear reactor.

It’s worth taking note of this as we seem to be moving toward the idea that renewable resources are the answer to our energy problems.  A group of senators, including myself, has been invited to the White House on Tuesday, June 29, to discuss with the president how to proceed on clean energy.  My fear is that we may all be asked to settle this issue by pushing through a “renewable electricity standard” that says a certain percentage of our electricity – as much as 15% by 2020 – has to come from so-called “renewable” sources like wind, solar or biomass.  “Before you know it,” supporters of the renewable electricity standard say, “we’ll have all the energy we need from the wind, from the sun and from the earth running our highly advanced technological country.” 

It sounds good, but, more than half the states have already adopted some version of these renewable electricity standards and they haven’t accomplished much.  New Jersey wants to close down a nuclear reactor and replace it with an offshore wind farm, but it hasn’t taken the first step.  When it does, it will need to have 50-story wind turbines along its entire 125-mile coast and it will still need a natural gas plant or some other source to provide electricity when the wind doesn’t blow, which is most of the time.

Denmark, often cited for wind power success, pushed its windmills up to 20 percent of its electrical capacity.  Many people regard 20 percent as about the theoretical limit of the amount that wind power can supply to an electricity grid even for a small country like Denmark.  Yet, Denmark hasn’t closed a single coal plant as a result of all these new windmills.  It’s still highly dependent on fossil fuels, and it has the most expensive electricity in Europe because of all its renewable electricity.  Meanwhile, France, which has gone 80 percent to nuclear power, has 30 percent lower carbon emissions per person than Denmark.  France has so much cheap electricity that it is making $3 billion a year exporting it to other countries.

Then there’s the matter of subsidies.  We’ve all heard about oil subsidies—but I would suggest when we talk about Big Oil, we should also talk about “Big Wind.”  The United States taxpayers are already committed to spending $29 billion over the next ten years to subsidize the investors, the corporations and the banks that have financed the big wind turbines, and they only produce 1.8 percent of our electricity.  If we went to 20 percent of our electricity from wind in the United States, that would be $170 billion from American taxpayers.

Americans use 25 percent of all the energy in the world to produce about 25 percent of all the wealth in the world—and yet the U.S. population is only five percent of the world’s.  In order to keep our high standard of living, we need to remember we’re not a desert island.  Solar, wind and biomass are important supplements, but America’s 21st Century reliable, low-cost energy needs are not going to be met by electricity produced by a windmill, a controlled bonfire and a few solar panels.